Blanketed in Faith
Donna Ouellette regularly wraps herself in her beloved Indigenous blanket to quiet her complex emotions. Donna is the first to say, she is not the same person she was five years ago. Cancer has transformed her from purpose-focused to heart-centered, thanks to cultural practices and nourishment from a community she holds dear.
“In 2016, I was a very passionate senior HR manager. I was unstoppable. A workaholic,” she said. Then came the diagnosis of Stage lll triple-negative breast cancer, and life intervened. “It didn’t change me right away.” Donna’s coping mechanism was to bury herself in her work. “I was completely disconnected from the whole experience. I just wanted to go back to work. Work was my way of numbing. I was working up to 16-hour days, seven days a week right up until my double mastectomy.”
Donna’s fierce independence and refusal to let cancer topple her world kept her from experiencing her emotions, and at the same time, made it tough for her loved ones to support her. “I wanted to go to my appointments by myself. I told my husband to go to work – I wanted to take a cab to my surgery and go alone. My daughter and niece insisted on driving me, and came in with me, despite my wish to be dropped off. The only time I cried was when they were taking me to the operating room and I looked back and saw my daughter crying.”
That same daughter would later help Donna shift her energy from head to heart by making a four-year commitment to dance in the Sacred Sun Lodge to help rid her mother’s cancer. This can be viewed as a culturally relevant approach to health and wellness that is grounded in ceremony. The ceremony is profoundly spiritual and moving. Donna was deeply honoured by this magnificent gift from her daughter and her community.
Donna partially recovered from her surgery in early November and after spending two weeks in the hospital, stubbornly returned to work. At Christmas she took a pre-planned trip to Disneyland with her family. Upon her return, Donna endured aggressive chemotherapy while continuing to work 12-16 days despite experiencing horrific side effects from chemotherapy.
Then, just like that, a scan in early 2019 indicated that the cancer was back. Treatment included a second surgery that involved removing the majority of her left lung. A comprehensive holistic approach to health and wellness, coupled with support from her family and community, ceremonies, fasting, sweat lodges, smudging and drinking traditional medicines, again restored Donna’s health and gave her back treasured family time.
Today Donna’s full-time job is to follow a healthy regime and stay grounded in culture, ceremony and her quest for healing. While the pandemic has been an obstacle in attending in person ceremonies, she finds herself reliant on her own prayers and collective prayers from community. With recent reports of further metastasis, she is doing all she can to live well, including a multitude of holistic practices and cultural approaches to wellness that help her transcend the side effects of treatment, and stay connected to a strong life force.
Also in pursuit of wellness, she has joined Wellspring Calgary, and says she is deeply grateful for the support she receives from staff, volunteers and other members. She is taking part in the Wellspring Indigenous Cancer Sharing Circle, a monthly program led by an Elder that provides a safe and confidential space for sharing.
“The Indigenous Cancer Sharing Circle has been absolutely unbelievable … a life-changer for me. As you share your stories or experiences you feel heard and understood. You feel like these people really care about you. To hear other people share their challenges or issues is comforting. It reaffirms that you are not in this scary situation by yourself.”
Although Donna has only recently began to inquire about her own Indigenous ancestry, she is grateful for her family’s cultural ways of life and the welcoming arms of her Blackfoot ceremony family. Donna’s husband and daughter are Cree/Métis and members of the Métis Nation of Alberta and her son-in law and grandson are members of the Kainai First Nations Blood Reserve.
Donna says she was told that if this cancer metastasizes, it is extremely aggressive and incurable. Despite the reoccurrence, she continues to defy the odds. “I wholeheartedly believe that if it wasn’t for the doctoring and healing I have received from my Elders and community, I would not be here today. I hold deep in my heart and am so grateful for my ceremonial family and all they have done and continue to do for me.”